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Monday, March 14, 2011

The Last Lions

Are famed wildlife filmmakers tracking the last of a breed?

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Fifty years ago, some 450,000 lions roamed Africa. By now, reduced by relentless poaching and the encroachment of humans, their numbers may have sunk as low as 20,000, and their range has been confined to some of the continent's most remote places. The increasingly precarious lives of these kings and queens of beasts, a totemic symbol for humanity from before history and valuable creatures in their own right, form the backdrop for the latest National Geographic film by the award-winning activist filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert.

Richly voiced by Jeremy Irons, The Last Lions shows and tells the determined story of survival of a lioness and her cubs after her mate is killed by a pride of newcomers to their territory, probably driven into deepest Botswana by the predations of hunters. Of course, the format begs a question: To what extent is the narrative imposed on nature by the Jouberts? Though we can never really know the thoughts of the animals in The Last Lions, the Jouberts' story can't be entirely divorced from reality. The filmmakers have spent nearly 30 years in the bush, closely observing the creatures in their environment and capturing their movement with increasingly light, mobile digital cameras. If anyone has any business second-guessing lions and water buffalo, it's the Jouberts.

Some of the photography is disturbing, especially the nightmarish scenes of lions fighting each other in the dim sepia of night-vision cameras. But mostly, The Last Lions is suffused with the solemn beauty of verdant and blue marshlands and the apricot-colored mists of the African dawn where yawning hippopotami rise from the swelling rivers. Capturing a story from nature in the time frame of a feature film is as much a miracle of patience and editing as deft camera work. The Last Lions was composed from hundreds of hours of footage shot over six years.

The unseen filmmakers and the voice of Irons are the only signs of humankind in an otherwise timeless environment where animals kill to live yet gather in recognizable families and communities. In addition to their documentary work, the Jouberts have established the Big Cats Initiative and Great Plains, organizations working to preserve the shrinking habitat of wild things through responsible tourism that leaves a light footprint on the land.

Opens March 18, Oriental Theatre.
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